A SELECTION of interviews first broadcast on the CBC-Radio program of the same name, Writers & Company (Knopf, 301 pages, $19 paper) includes such international luminaries as Doris Lessing, Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, Nadine Gordimer, Alice Munro, A. S. Byatt, Michael Ondaatje, and Cynthia Ozick.
Some of the interviews have been rerun this summer, and a comparison with the original versions suggests that careful editing has smoothed out the rough edges without sacrificing too much substance. What the transcripts notably fail to convey is the engaging manner of the show's host, Eleanor Wachtel.
Somewhat uneven in length Rushdie and Lessing rate 19 pages, the Irish writer Bernard MacLaverty only six - the interviews are characterized by a heavy concentration on the relationship between the lives of the writers and their material. When Wachtel cites Simone Weil's idea that "'What are you going through?' is all we need to ask," one gets the impression, confirmed by many of her questions, that she believes that writing is some kind of therapy rather than an art form.
Thus we learn much about Amy Tan's conservative Chinese mother, Russell Banks's abusive father, Mary Gordon's strict Catholic upbringing, Amos Oz's life on a kibbutz, and Spalding Gray's various neuroses. But there is little attention paid to the skill required to transform life into art. Wachtel's questions never lead to any consideration of style or technique, and as entertaining as these interviews may be, we are seldom reminded of the reasons why these writers were deemed worthy of being interviewed.